The Den of Geek interview: director Paddy Breathnach on Shrooms

Shrooms director Paddy Breathnach talks about drug-addled horror...

Tuesday 20th November. Bar San Valentino, Soho, London.

There’s tremendous potential in the notion of ‘psychedelic horror’ and there’s been wide admiration for the concept behind Shrooms. Do you need to have taken mushrooms to follow the narrative of it?

I’m not the biggest mushroom-head in the world by any means. There were other people involved in the development of the script that would have been, so I relied on some of their input.

But no, from my point of view I made the decision that I wasn’t trying to depict what the experience was of taking shrooms, because a lot of the time, when films try to do that in an active way, they fail miserably.

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It’s one of those things where you begin to feel the technology very heavily when you start doing that; you just know it’s a graphic or a video effect. You might get some pictorial element that will have some kind of similarity to it, but I don’t think you can ever create that feeling, and that’s the whole point of taking drugs like that – to have the experience and the feeling. It’s a very cold and shallow manifestation of it to try and create it in a very accurate visual way.

What I thought was the key to it was watching people, and watching their vulnerability, knowing that they have taken shrooms and that their perceptions are impaired. In other words, they can’t rely on themselves and we’re watching them in that situation, and that’s a very frightening thing.

If you’ve ever seen an animal, maybe a cat or a dog that’s just come back from the vets under anaesthetic, and they’re wobbling and walking and waking up, and they’re just – they can’t understand themselves. They’re kind of comic, in one way, but you’re seeing them at their most animalistic in a certain way. And I felt we could really play on that vulnerability to create a tension that’d be a good source for horror.

There’s not much gore in Shrooms…

No, as a friend of mine said, it’s more ‘dread’ than ‘red’. I was more interested that the film straddled that kind of mix between American teen-slasher and an Asian horror. My own interest would be Asian horror, and the sense of dread and weirdness.There’s no torture in your film. Were you tempted to put some in given the trend that Saw started and which still seems to be going strong?

The script went through a few different phases; in the earlier phases of the script, it was more of a ‘slasher’, and less of a sense of the supernatural; the Black Brothers were more cannibalistic, and they existed in a more immediate sense. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there was torture, but there was definitely more violence in it.

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We were exploring more the idea of shrooms and the vulnerability the characters have, where their perceptions are uncertain – that was the fundamental thing that was interesting about the idea, I think. But yeah, we weren’t exploiting that enough. We turned the script inside out, but in a weird way a lot of the set-pieces remained the same, but the context in which they happen changed. We pushed it much more in that psychological vein. I don’t think we avoided the torture thing, but it just wasn’t interesting to us. I haven’t seen many of the torture films, so I don’t know them as well.

The Asian influence missing from the film is the amorality, the sense that justice has nothing to do with it, whereas US-influenced horror sets up rebellious or law-breaking teens for punishment. Do you think that kind of approach might be the way to go with Western horror?

You can read it that the kids take drugs, and they’re promiscuous, etc. and that’s definitely one way, but in the film they’re punished by themselves – ultimately the darkness and the evil is inside, it isn’t supernatural or it isn’t the cosmos coming back to get them. They’re popping mushrooms and really unravelling the repression within the character, so that’s the source of the darkness.

It’s the not-so-hidden theme of Shrooms, the repression of thought – it’s about looking for bogeyman or Emmanuel Goldstein in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, hate figures, and then the ambiguity of whether those hate figures might have some sort of basis in reality. And that we can’t blame them for the things we do ourselves.

So it does kind-of fit in with the traditional American morality on the surface, but if you follow it through, we subvert that.

One of the things I love about Asian horrors so much is their ability to place horror and the supernatural and the unexplained in a very modern context, and that there are some things beyond reason, some things beyond our control. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in ghosts, or whatever, but I mean this just in a metaphorical sense, that there’s a realm that we cannot predict or control, even in our modern world with information and technology – the irrational and the Other can still creep into that world.

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They’ve [the Asian horror movies] done it in such a brilliant way and used the technology as the source of manifesting that, and I suppose that goes against the idea that progress is benign always, and they cut against that.

The other thing that I like about Asian horrors a lot is the use of female characters and female rage and anger, repressed anger in women, and that’s something that I think is kind of exciting because of the limitations of the female roles in a lot of western movies.

Speaking of which, there seems to be an increased female following for horror films – why do you think that is?

About the time that Emily Rose came out, the demographic began to skew towards female; I think it’s because the roles are probably there, and maybe in a weird way, women are closer to some of those basic elements…protecting children, being in tune with their bodies, and very basic thing like the cycles of their biology, the connections with blood, in a way; so symbolically maybe they’re closer to these things, and maybe you can also say that some of the classic horror had women with very strong senses; Texas Chainsaw and stuff like that, that sense of vulnerability that we’ve attached to women is there.

The female roles have become interesting just in the sense that it’s gone beyond that sense of vulnerability, that they’ve tuned into some kind of psychological frailties – failure in marriage, being a parent who mightn’t be the best mother in the world, or having a bad relationship with your own mother. All of those areas…maybe there’s more nuance and subtlety in women’s’ accounts of those things, and that makes them more interesting for horror. A big, broad, sweeping statement!

Ireland, with its rich history of folklore and ghosts and atmospheric landscapes, has made little contribution to horror cinema compared to Italy, Spain, Germany, The US and UK, and so on. Why is that?

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That’s true, but it’s much to do with the fact that we haven’t made much of a contribution generally in cinema – I say that obviously with some notable exceptions, but in terms of very ‘genre’ cinema, definitely not. We’re not known for any particular genre. And really it’s only 20-25 years since Irish cinema began to emerge in any sense.

So the fact that we haven’t made that mark doesn’t surprise me, because I don’t think we’ve made it in a lot of areas. I think there’s definitely stuff that we have to explore that we haven’t explored. For example, touching again on Asian horror, we have the Banshee myth in Ireland, and nobody’s really done that, and I would be very interested to see someone do that in the modern context. That’s effectively what a lot of Japanese horrors are based on, a harbinger of death, foretelling your death. They don’t kill you physically, it’s really…the Grim Reaper in some ways. I’d be interested to do that in the modern context in Ireland.

There are other ideas as well…the ghost stories are pretty big, in terms of folklore and everything. I don’t think there are enough film-makers really to develop it as an industry based on one genre, so I think it will be the occasional thing that comes out.

Is horror something you’d like to have another go at?

Yeah I would. I have quite eclectic tastes and I’ve done comedies and I like doing comedies. I’d like to do a chiller or a thriller…there’s some horror stuff that I’m working on, but it’s kind of horror/chiller, horror/thriller or something. There’s a John Connolly short story from a collection called Nocturnes, which is a book of horror and kind of middling sci-fi fantasy short stories, called The Cancer Cowboy Rides Again which I want to do. It’s a bit Cronenberg and a bit David Lynch, the elements of horror that they might go for, but also crosses over into chiller and thriller maybe.

Do you admire certain horror directors?

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I’m not a buff, in the sense that I wouldn’t turn up every Saturday with my scarf, I’d be lying if I told you that I did; I tend to prefer particular movies. For example, a film that I liked a lot in the horror/thriller category was What Lies Beneath. I thought that was a fantastically well made film, a very subtle and really beautifully crafted film. I remember there’s a scene early in it with Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford in bed, and he turns and you see his back, and you sort of say ‘he’s fifty and we’re seeing his back – something’s not right about this’. I just knew at that stage that ‘something’s wrong’, and I love that in a movie, that something subtle is going on.

On the one hand horror is very mainstream and attempting to connect people in a very basic way – it’s making you frightened, it’s making you feel uncomfortable, making you scream and jump, whatever, very basic things connecting to our heads in that very primitive way. But in a craft sense, some of them are the best-made films; they’re the most beautiful films. The sound, the music, the detail…composers, for instance, have so many opportunities to use so many techniques as in a horror score. You get a piece of music like Penderecki, that they use in The Shining, it’s such a fantastic and such a compliacted piece of music…I used that on the temp score. Where else do you get the opportunity to do the most extreme, contemporary, avant guarde music in movies?

So horror is a funny genre in that on the one hand it’s seen as throwaway and trash, but actually in terms of cinematography and on so many other levels, it’s really very interesting. I thought The Others was a great film, talking about more mainstream stuff.

On the Asian side, I loved A Tale Of Two Sisters, a really beautifully made film; there are some horror scenes in it, but it doesn’t completely play the horror card, I think, and in a way it’s more of an art-house film, because it’s so beautiful. Dark Water I thought was really beautiful, in terms of handling something uncanny but having that symbolic element of water, and the way they used that was brilliant, I thought. I enjoyed the remake as well, even though maybe it’s not ‘horrible’ enough, but it’s a beautiful film, one of the best-shot films for a long time.

In terms of influences in Shrooms, it was kind of eclectic in the sense of some horror films that weren’t horror, that I watched, like Sexy Beast and Raging Bull and they were more from the camera point of view. Jacobs Ladder was another one that I watched a few times in relation to it. People have said that Blair Witch was an influence, and there’s obviously a reason why, but I didn’t actually watch that, maybe deliberately.

There was a shot that we dropped, actually, and I might put it on the DVD. It was a reference to Exorcist III, that shot in the corridor…?

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I love that shot – I was writing about it only a few weeks ago.

It’s a great shot! The shot is in the film still, but I changed the way that we used it. The shot where she’s walking down the corridor and she goes into a door, looks in, and goes back, and then goes to another door, returns, then walks left to right and after that we see the patient coming after her; but somehow it just didn’t work for us, and that was a direct reference to that film. I like a lot of Asian stuff that’s considered ‘trashy’ too.


Shrooms is on general UK release from today. Our review is here.